A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sermon (February 24) - "Unbinding Your Soul: Connect the Dots"


You’ve heard it said: “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.”
Sounds racy,and exciting. I heard of a minister of a small country church who noticed that about half of her small congregation was missing one Sunday morning. A little investigative work led her to discover three families had taken a trip to Vegas together.
The Sunday they returned, the joke was on them. She ribbed them all by beginning her sermon with a harsh tone. “Last week, you may recall,” she began, “We talked about the demonic dangers of gambling.”
She took a deep breath and gazed intently at the congregation. Then she continued, “This week, we’ll talk about the powerful pitfalls of not giving your Vegas winnings to the church.”
The wayward parishioners squirmed uncontrollably for a few moments, until the preacher stopped staring them down and broke into a grin. “Nah, she said, the sermon’s really about helping kids come to know Jesus.”
After church, one of the Vegas gang teased her, “Okay, so how did you find out where we were?”
Most of us have pretty clear compartments to our lives. Vegas doesn’t usually come to church. And church doesn’t come to other parts of our lives nearly often enough.
We wear different hats ― boy scout leader, businessman, church volunteer, wife, son, nature enthusiast.
Have you had the experience of seeing someone in a grocery store in their casual clothes? Maybe you see your dentist training her dog at the park and don’t recognize her without the white lab coat. Or you’re in the check-out aisle with your kids’ principal who doesn’t usually wear gym shorts to his office. Our faith can pretty easily become another hat we wear.
Colossians is a letter, likely written by the apostle Paul, to the churches of Colossae and surrounding towns. The Colossian Christians were beginning to explore some extra-curricular faith practices.
They were intrigued by different philosophies and curious about practicing astrology. Paul writes to persuade them that Christ deserves our full-hearted, whole-minded devotion. And he uses the analogy of clothing to get his point across.
“When you get dressed spiritually,” Paul writes, “Don’t just wear a little of this and a little of that, a little astrology on your Tee-shirt or a 1-900-PSYCHIC on your baseball cap. No! Paul says, we’re God’s chosen ones, we’ve got to be clothed completely in the love of Christ.”
Paul insists that faith in Christ is not something that is put on here and taken off there; our faith is the hat we constantly wear. No matter where we are! But how often are we wearing our faith?
Jill is a pastor. She lives next door to a woman named Beth. Beth hasn’t been to church more than about three times in her life.
Jill has talked to Beth across the front yard many times. She’s even kept Beth’s daughter when Beth had to work late. They’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. Or so it seemed.
One spring weekend just before Easter, Beth and Jill were standing outside in the driveway chatting. Beth said, “You know, I have never been to church for Easter, and I think I’d like to go this year. Jill, do you go to church anywhere around here?”
Jill’s jaw hit the sidewalk. Her face turned red as a beet, and she stammered for how to respond. Finally, she blurted out, “Oh my, Beth. I am so embarrassed. How is it that I have never told you that I am the minister of the church down the street?”
Oh my, indeed. Oh, my Lord, have mercy. Jill’s Christian hat hadn’t made it on her head to the neighbor’s house.
“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Paul urges the Colossian Christians and us to speak and to act everywhere and every time in the name of Jesus Christ.
Remember dot to dots from kids’ restaurant placemats, where you get the 4 crayons and activities until your pancakes come? You put your pencil to the paper and connect dot #1 to #2, and then dot #2 to dot #3, and so on, pretty soon, a new picture emerges.
As a church, we are asking God for more: more revelation of God in our personal lives, more presence of God in our lives together as a church, more strength, more power, more joy, more love, more God!
More happens when we connect the dots. In your bulletin today on the sermon outline, there is the most simple dot-to-dot you can get!
By dot #1, write down something that you do at least once a week, if not every day. Maybe it’s read the paper, or go to lunch at the same corner cafĂ©, or get on Facebook, or go to the gym. Name your dot.
Now, draw a line between the dot you’ve named and dot #2.  Dot #2 is your faith. Make drawing this line your prayer. Ask God, “Would you show me how to connect my faith to this regular activity in my life? Would you show me more of you while I’m doing this?”
Colossians says, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
When Scripture says “in the name of”, it means “in the presence of.” It means: Whatever you do, do it in the presence of Jesus himself, as if he’s really there. Because he is. He’s right here, and he’s out there in your house, and in your regular life.
In our Tuesday daily devotional reading this past week, it talked about noticing God’s presence in our day to day living.  The devotional said, “We don’t think about it, or see it very often,but people and God give us gifts every day.  Our very lives are gifts. People bless us, and we’re so busy, we just blow by it and don’t even recognize a blessing when someone hands it to us!
People let us cut into a line of traffic. A greeter at Wal-Mart holds a door or gives you a cart. Maybe you don’t get the speeding ticket you earned! Someoine catches your child swiping M & Ms and talks with her! You have a job. You are out of work, but can volunteer at the animal shelter. Someone talks to you at the gym. Lunch with your friends at school is fun. Someone sends you a thank-you note. You get to spend an hour reading.
And then the devotional asked us to carry a 3 x 5 card in our pocket that day. It asked us to write a short note about every time we experienced a blessing from God. But then the next part of that exercise was even more important.  It said to whisper a thank you to God after each of those blessings and to ask God to bless that person.
So I followed through with this exercise and was amazed at the many ways that I experienced God throughout that day.
The first thing that happened was when I met with other United Methodist pastors for our monthly share group meeting.  We met at Pleasantville United Methodist Church and the pastor celebrated Holy Communion with us.
He then gave us a tour of the church and when he showed us the church kitchen, we noticed a wonderful smell coming from two large roasters. And he surprised us by saying, “I have some comfort food that I want us to enjoy today. Homemade chicken and noodles.” And together in the church basement, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch together. I thanked God for those unexpected blessings and I asked God to bless this pastor and his congregation.
I then made some visits at the hospital and one of the members I visited said to me, “You have the nicest smile.” I closed by offering a prayer for healing for this  member of our church.
By late afternoon, my 3 x 5 card was already full of many ways that I had experienced God’s presence that day. As I was reflecting on these blessings, I felt led to call a dear friend of mine, a retired United Methodist pastor whose wife passed away in early January. I just wanted to see how he was doing.
As soon as he heard my voice on the phone, he said, “Robert, I was actually thinking of calling you today.” And for the next several minutes over the phone, he was able to talk about the funeral and how he was adjusting to life without his wife by his side.
And then he blessed me with a very moving story. He said that over the years, his wife would only use cash at the grocery store. And if she didn’t spend all of her cash that week for groceries, she would put the leftover money in a little tin container.  This went on over several decades.
When his wife stopped going to the grocery store because of health problems, they had forgotten all about that tin container. A couple of months ago, when she needed to move into assisted living, they stumbled upon that tin container.  It had been tucked back on a shelf in a closet. She said that she had never counted the money and out of curiosity, wanted him to count it.
And he did. That tin container was stuffed with ones, fives, tens, and even twenties. Over all those years, she had collected $1,000 from unused grocery money.
So he said to his wife, “You should take this money and buy something nice for yourself.” And she said, “No. If I die before you, I want you to take the family out to a really nice restaurant.”
The night before the funeral last month, he took his family to a really expensive restaurant in Columbus.  And that’s when he told them, “You’re mom is paying for this dinner. She wanted us to be together tonight as a family.”
As he told me this story over the phone, he was crying, I was crying. It was a holy moment.
So that was my Tuesday this past week.
Our Unbinding Your Soul church-wide focus is helping me to connect the dots in my life and to become more aware of how God is part of my day to day routine. This is what Jesus helped his disciples to experience as they followed him.  He helped them to see God at work in their day to day living. He opened their eyes to see the more that God has in mind for each and every one of us.
Bill’s church began a summer ministry to children. Lots of the kids in their neighborhood are on the school district’s Free and Reduced Lunch Program during the school year.
The church people realized that these kids were going without those subsidized meals in the summer time. So, they started passing out lunches to the neighbor kids. Pretty soon, they were driving a little bus around, passing out lunches all over the community.
Bill was the bus driver for the program. He would pull the bus up to a low-income apartment complex or trailer park and honk the horn, letting the kids know they had arrived. As the kids came up to the bus, Bill would smile at them. He’d hand them their lunch, and say, “Have a nice day!”
One day Bill came home from his lunch delivery rounds to find his wife in tears. She had been teaching the third graders at Vacation Bible School at their church that morning. Now she was sitting in a heap on their living room floor.
Bill ran over to her, “What’s wrong?’ “Today,” she said, “I asked the kids in my class at Vacation Bible School to raise their hands if they know Jesus loves them. And two little boys did not raise their hands.”
“Okay,” Bill said, still unsure what the problem was. “Bill,” his wife wept, “No one has ever told those boys Jesus loves them!”
A light went on in Bill’s head, and a flood gate burst forth in Bill’s heart. “Oh, my!” he thought. “The children on my lunch route may not know either!” Bill connected the dots.
So the next day on his route, Bill drove up to the apartment, and the trailers, and he honked the bus horn. When the children came out to get their lunches, he smiled at them just the same. But when he handed them their lunches, he did not say “Have a nice day!”  Bill said, “Jesus loves you.”
What if what happened in church didn’t stay in church? What if we let God connect the dots?

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